This story has been updated.
Ari, the protagonist in the book “What Are Your Words,” has a conundrum: they don’t know what pronouns to use today.
“She” and “her” feel too “sharp and crackly” while “he” and “him” feel too “squirmy and wiggly.” Ari walks with their uncle through the neighborhood, learning what words others use to describe themselves before finding that “they/them” feel like the right pronouns for the day.
A satisfying end for Ari, perhaps. But when the children’s book was displayed prominently in the Kent Memorial Library in Suffield earlier this fall, a ruckus ensued that has since spilled over into the municipal elections.
It began when a resident said they didn’t want children exposed to the book.
The book teaches kids about pronouns and was included in a display about kindness in the children’s section of the library, said Julie Styles, the former library director in Suffield.
First Selectman Colin Moll wanted to take what he viewed as a middle-ground approach: Moll decided to tell the library director to take the book off the display and put it back on the shelves. He viewed it as a compromise between the town resident and the librarian, who thought removing the book was antithetical to her professional ethics.
“I thought it was a balanced approach, right or wrong,” Moll said. “Some people thought it was the greatest thing, and some people thought it was the worst thing to do. So it was a no-win.”
“You’re trying to silence ideas and to kind of hide away books about certain people or books that address certain topics,” Styles said. “That’s very much against our professional ethos.”
The decision kicked off a chain of events that led to Styles’ resignation, news articles about the small-town library and prompted Moll’s opponent, Rick Sotil, who is unaffiliated with a political party, to run for office. The issue has hit home with many voters, and some running for local office have discussed it as a piece of their campaign platform.
Book banning and censorship has been on the rise in the United States over recent months, largely driven by organized groups that have requested banning of hundreds of books across the country, said Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association.
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which tracks challenges to library materials and programming, saw 695 challenges to 1,915 titles from January to August, a 20% increase from the same time last year. Most of those challenges were books that were written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s a national political talking point that’s largely being addressed at local levels. It’s a piece of the conversation in elections both in Connecticut towns and across the country, said Sarah McCusker, president of the Connecticut Library Association.
Moll doesn’t view his decision as censorship. He got a complaint and addressed it in what he viewed as a compromise. The book is still available on the shelf; it was just taken down from a display. It’s an attitude he takes toward the rest of his governance: middle ground is always best.
He says he’s used that approach in other town issues, such as excessive speeding on some streets or drainage problems on others, and viewed the library issue as just another problem to address.
“I’m OK with the decision I made, right or wrong,” Moll said. “I made the decision, and I’m sticking with it.”
But library professionals say the library is meant as a resource, so different families can find answers to questions and support for their life experiences in stories.
“When you take something out of people’s view, you may think that you are doing that to protect them from something, but you’re also sending a message to the people that would benefit from this book that their stories, their lives are less important,” Styles said.
Moll said he read the book in question and didn’t have personal objections. But he knew that some people were concerned that it wasn’t age-appropriate to talk to young children about gender.
“Just because I don’t know what ‘ze’ and ‘zir’ means, it doesn’t mean somebody doesn’t have the right to use them,” Moll said. “But my opinion, when it comes to this kind of stuff, doesn’t matter. That balance in the community is what matters and the opinions of everybody.”
Library professionals, including Styles, said they believed the decision about displays should be up to professional librarians who are qualified to curate a selection of books.
“He believes it’s not censorship,” Styles said, referring to Moll. “But you’re really restricting certain ideas and prioritizing certain ideas over others.”
What happened in Suffield
About 18 miles north of Hartford and bordering Massachusetts, Suffield has flip-flopped between voting for Democrats and Republicans with thin margins. In 2016, half of votes went to Donald Trump and 44% were for Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Joe Biden took the town with a thin margin: 50% to 48%.
Moll, a Republican, was elected in 2021, defeating Democrat Melissa Mack in her run for a third term. The town has a population of nearly 16,000, about 80% of whom are white, and has a median income of about $116,000 annually, well over the state median of about $80,000.
The Kent Memorial Library is nestled on Main Street next to a bank and a coffee shop. It’s sometimes a bustling afternoon stop where children play with toy trains next to paintings of woodland creatures, engrossed in their books. Teenagers study nearby, and the occasional patron wanders in to check out their next read.
Styles came on board as the library’s director in late summer 2022, and the issue with “What Are Your Words” came soon after. The library has a form that patrons who want to object to a book can fill out, but at the time of the complaint, the form and accompanying policy dealt only with removing books from the library.
Moll said he believed it was within his authority as first selectman to have the book taken off the display.
Styles said she strongly objected to the decision but ultimately did as he asked.
The discussion among town officials about how to deal with this issue was wide-ranging, said Austin Roberts, Library Commission chair. Some thought that if books about LGBTQ+ issues were displayed, the library should also be required to display the “opposite perspective.”
“It is impossible to have equal and opposite views of every single book on a library shelf,” Roberts said. “To argue that we have to have it in one specific area, to argue that we have to apply that to LGBTQ+ books and not to other books is, I believe, inappropriate.”
The other issue sprang up around the library’s reservations calendar. When outside groups would reserve a space in the library, the public-facing online reservation wouldn’t include details about who reserved the room.
Moll asked Styles to start putting information online that included the name of the person or group that reserved the room, in the interest of transparency, he said. The request came close to the same time that other members of the board of selectmen were asking about a specific group — an activist group called the Anti Bias, Anti Racist Suffield, or ABAR.
Selectmen were asking library staff about details of the meeting, including what they talked about, which Styles said seemed strange and politically motivated.
Moll and Roberts say the timing was a coincidence, but because they were so close, Styles initially thought it was fishy.
She eventually did what Moll asked and sent along the information, but she said she was called in for a conversation about her “insubordination” with human resources.
“In the case of the book that was on display and in the case of the meeting rooms, I did do what he asked me to do … but I had disagreed with him in both cases,” she said.
“I realized that going forward, if more requests came my way to do things that I disagreed with, I could eventually possibly be fired.”
Rather than risk it, she resigned.
Moll says he believes he works in a fair way overseeing the various departments. He doesn’t think he interferes too much and tries to work with them to resolve conflicts in the town.
National issues becoming local
The problem with the book that launched the saga is not new. Roberts said that the town had gotten requests to take books out of the library before, typically all from the same person, and typically right after Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community.
Many of the increasing number of book challenges in Connecticut have been by or about LGBTQ+ people, McCusker said. They’ve been in both school and public libraries. Many appear to be from people who found an online list of books and requested bans.
McCusker said they’d learned about book challenges in school when she was becoming a librarian, but it didn’t immediately seem like something that would happen. There have always been challenges, but they’ve greatly increased in number, she said.
“It always seemed like something kind of abstract that happens someplace else, but it does happen here, and it has always happened here,” McCusker said.
From January to August, there were 14 book challenges of 109 titles in Connecticut, according to online data from the American Library Association.
States and localities across the country have seen book challenges used as a political issue nationally, although it’s typically enacted at the local level, said Trish Crouse, a University of New Haven professor of political science.
“You have sort of these small voices who are guiding policy when it comes to banning books, and I don’t believe as a political scientist that that’s really the way we should be making policy decisions,” Crouse said.
Other national talking points have trickled down to local politics in Connecticut such as critical race theory or parental rights.
“I think there’s a stigma attached to local elections that they’re meaningless, and I think that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Crouse said. “These are the elections that really do affect our daily lives.”
A local election
Suffield officials are still deciding some of the best ways to deal with disputes about library displays, and since Styles’ October resignation, no interim director has been appointed. Much of that decision making will likely depend on the results of Tuesday’s election, because members of the board of selectmen are up for reelection, Roberts said.
The Democratic Town Committee had signs in support of the library made, which chairman Tom Frenaye said they’ll leave up past the election.
The committee didn’t put anyone up for the first selectman race. Frenaye said it’s tough to find people who want to run for the office. It’s a two-year term. The lack of stability makes it difficult to find someone who is willing to take a couple of years out of their career to run for the office.
“We twisted some arms and still came up with nobody who felt strongly enough that they wanted to do it,” Frenaye said.
He added that while he doesn’t think Moll is perfect, he’s “fairly good.”
Moll’s opponent, Sotil, said he decided to run because of the issues with the library. His family immigrated to the United States from Cuba, and he said the book challenges reminded him of the communist movement in Cuba.
“I’m paying it forward, and now I’m fighting for the constitution, and what really bothers me is that this political party in town supports banning that book,” he said. “I’m flabbergasted.”
“If you don’t like a book that’s on the shelf, don’t read it.”
He also wants to push for more transparency in public meetings by ensuring that they’re always available online with higher audio quality.
Moll said he wasn’t concerned about the challenge and said that Sotil doesn’t really live in town.
Sotil said he lives in a warehouse he owns in Suffield.
Jerry Mahoney, an incumbent Republican candidate for Board of Selectmen, took issue in an article in the Suffield Observer with the book’s contents, claiming it violated the First Amendment to put it on display.
“The display violated Suffield residents’ First Amendment rights by endorsing one viewpoint in a topic of public debate and by excluding other viewpoints, for example, that gender is fixed, or limited to male and female, or that children should seek guidance from their parents,” Mahoney wrote in the article. “Provide viewpoint neutrality and let residents decide for themselves.”
Meanwhile, Democrat Mel Chafetz expressed his support for the library and concern over how politics was affecting the institution as well as schools.
“People take on issues without examining their complexities or become rigid in their positions and argumentative,” he said.
Sandra Janik, an ABAR member and member of the town’s Pride group, said she thinks Sotil has a good chance. The issues with the library have people stirred up, she said.
She’s been door-knocking for the election, and said she’s heard from people on both sides of the issue — including some Democrats who are voting for Moll. In other instances, she’s seen yard signs for Republican candidates and Sotil.
The controversy over the library has stacked up with other incidents, including a debate over whether to fly a pride flag outside the library and incidents with swastikas graffitied in town, to make her worry that it’s becoming an unwelcoming place.
“It impacts me because it’s my community,” Janik said. “I care. I love Suffield. I want everybody to be able to love it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that library commission members were up for reelection on Tuesday. They are appointed, not elected.